Soprano Johanna Meier
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Soprano Johanna Meier makes
her Lyric Opera debut in this
production of Ariadne auf Naxos.
Miss Meier, who scored a major
triumph this past summer as the first American-born soprano to appear
as Isolde at Bayreuth, has become one of the most acclaimed
interpreters of Strauss and Wagner heroines, establishing an
international reputation for her portrayals of Isolde in Tristan und
Isolde, Senta in Der
Fliegende Hollander, Eva in Die
Nurnberg, Sieglinde in Die
Walküre, the Masrchallin in Der
Rosenkavalier, the Countess in Capriccio,
and the title role in Ariadne
auf Naxos. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the
Despite the enormous demand for appearances in the highly specialized
Strauss and Wagner roles, Johanna Meier has won equal renown in a
remarkable variety of roles in Italian, French, German, and English
repertory, as well as in operetta.
Miss Meier's European debut came in 1976 as Ariadne on the Italian
Radio Network, followed by debuts in Zurich, Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin,
and Madrid. She has appeared frequently with the Metropolitan
and the New York City Opera, with which she has sung numerous roles and
virtually all of the Mozart heroines. She has also appeared with
opera companies of Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Pittsburgh,
Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., and as a soloist with major
orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony,
the Boston Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, and the Los Angeles
Her future engagements include a debut at the Montreal Festival Opera
in Fidelio, which she is also
scheduled to do at the Vienna State Opera
and the Metropolitan Opera, and a return to Bayreuth to sing Isolde in
1982 and 1983. She is slated to sing major roles in Wagner and
operas for the Metropolitan Opera during the next few years.
-- Biography from the
program of the 1981 production of Ariadne
auf Naxos at Lyric Opera of Chicago
In October and November of 1981, Meier was "back" in Chicago to sing
the title roles in Ariade auf Naxos
and Fidelio with Lyric
Opera. The Strauss was the Metropolitan Opera production which
also featured (among others) Trudeliese Schmidt and later Yvonne Minton as the
Composer, William Johns as Bacchus, Ruth Welting as
Gordon as Scaramuccio, Gualtiero Negrini
as an Officer, and Marek Janowski conducting. The Beethoven was
directed by Hans Hotter, and included (among others) Jon Vickers as
Florestan, Leif Roar as Don Pizarro, Paul Plishka as Rocco, Elizabeth
Hynes as Marzelline, and Terry
Cook as the Second Prisoner. Gustav Kuhn conducted. [Links here and later in the text refer to
my interviews found elsewhere on this website.] Between
performances we met in a dressing room backstage at the Civic Opera
House. As it turned out, it was a very special dressing room, the
story of which will be revealed in this conversation!
Since the first use of this material was for Wagner News, much of the
conversation centers on the works she was doing in this repertoire.
While setting up for the conversation, we spoke of audiences both old
and new, and I remarked about taking someone to the opera for the first
time . . . . .
She's getting interested. Everything is new. It's so much
fun to watch her reaction at seeing La
Bohème for the first time.
Oh, yes. One of my favorite memories of that was years ago when I
was doing a tour of Traviata.
We were playing to colleges and I remember a young girl coming
backstage after the second act. She was so excited
— it was probably her first opera — and
she said "Oh, I can't wait to see how it ends!" I thought, "Oh,
to be at that degree of naïveté where you don't
know how Traviata ends."
BD: Let's start with
Wagner. You were the first American soprano to sing Isolde at
true. I was the thirteenth Isolde since the beginning of the
festival, but the first American.
Bayreuth special to you?
JM: Yes, of
course. Singing there has to be one of the things that everybody
who sings Wagner dreams of doing. It is really a particular kind
of atmosphere and a very special place to perform. For an
American singer, it's particularly impressive because we have,
unfortunately, become kind of inured in this country in the last 10 or
12 years to working under rather difficult conditions with lots of
union problems and strikes and that constant pressure of not enough
money for sufficient rehearsals. To go into an atmosphere like
Bayreuth, where absolutely everyone is so concerned with the excellence
of the production, is really a marvelous experience.
BD: Are you a
team of equals?
absolutely is, and everything is done there on the premises. All
the scenery and costumes are made there, and it is fun to wander out in
the workshops and hear carpenters whistling snatches of Wagner and to
hear seamstresses quoting lines to one another. They are all so
much into it. It's not a fast buck for them or just a job, it's
really an endeavor. Everybody is interested in the performances
and in wanting to make them as fine as they can be. It's a very
special atmosphere of dedication which everybody has from Mr. Wagner
right down to the lowliest employee.
BD: Is it
special to work with Wagner's grandson?
certainly. He is a very, very nice man. I met him first
when I went to sing for him there on the stage a year and a half
ago. It was during the early spring, and the house is not
heated. It's used only in the summertime and not during the rest
of the year. Some of the offices are heated, but the auditorium
is not, so I had to do the audition in my winter coat, and I could see
my breath in front of me as I sang. We all went in there just
freezing to death, and I told him I was sorry not to know any Eskimo
songs... But he was very personable and very nice at our first
meeting, and this was certainly reinforced by knowing him during the
summer. He is a very cordial man and has a very good rapport with
his performers. I think he is also a very clever man and has
handled the festival very well.
BD: Tell me
about the acoustics. Is it different singing on that stage from
any other stage in the world?
enough, they are perhaps slightly more difficult for us on the stage
than in some other places because of the placement of the
orchestra. The orchestral sound comes up onto the stage with a
tremendous roar, and you have the feeling that you are being absolutely
engulfed by this big orchestral sound. You have to be very
careful not to abandon your principles of singing and try to match that
great sound. You have to remember that when it comes up and over,
it comes out to the audience in a perfect blend. From the front
of the house, it probably is the finest set-up anywhere in the world,
but it's a sound that you have to get used to. Every singer has
had to go through that. I was told about it so I knew what to
expect, but it is a strange sensation that you have to accustom
BD: Does the
voice come back at you at all, or does it go out and you feel it's lost
doesn't come back a great deal, no. Generally, as I say, you have
to just stick to your guns and sing the way you know you should be
singing and not listen for yourself.
BD: Tell me about
the role of Isolde. Was it new for you?
JM: As Isolde
goes I considered it new, but I had sung five previous productions for
about 27 performances. So for a role like Isolde, that is
new. Isolde is something that continues to grow, and one
continues to learn from it and with it over a long period of
time. I remember the second production, which was in
Nilsson was there for a gala concert, and she came back afterwords
and I told her I was sorry she had come so early on to hear me so newly
in the role. She said she had done well over 200 performances and
was still learning the role, finding out how to deal with it.
It's not something that you ever completely conquer.
BD: Is this
part of why the Bayreuth Festival asks artists back for several
consecutive years in the same production?
JM: Yes to a
certain extent, but that is traditionally the way they work.
Unless some very unsatisfactory situation develops, they try to retain
the original cast through the run of the production.
BD: Had you
ever sung Brangaene at all?
JM: No, I've
never sung mezzo roles.
BD: How do
you like working with René Kollo?
JM: I had
worked with him before at the Met. We did Ariadne together so we knew one
another. He is a good colleague.
BD: Do you
find the blend of your voices the same at Bayreuth as at the Met?
JM: I would
say the blend probably is the same, but the works were so
different. Ariadne is
such a different kind of work. We actually end up with a very
good blend. He has a comparatively lyric sound, as I do, so the
weight of the voices was very well balanced. We were also
physically well-matched. He is a tall man which is helpful for me
because I am a tall lady!
BD: Do you
have nightmares of getting a 5'4" tenor?
JM: Oh, it's
happened. But you learn how to deal with it after a while.
I'd like to make it known that I'm singing Isolde — and
other similar roles — not as a hoch-dramatische soprano. I
do not consider myself a "heavy dramatic," and I doubt that I will ever
be so. I am what the Germans call a Jugendliche, which is a lyric
soprano, and that was upsetting to some people over there, as it is to
some people over here. They have been accustomed in recent years
to a Nilsson kind of sound.
BD: There was
no problem getting through the role with your voice?
JM: None at
all. It's just that people have grown accustomed to associating
that sound with Wagner. I feel very strongly that audiences and
critics who are thinking intellectually about Wagnerian performances
have to go back and consider that Wagner did not write for what is now
thought of as a Wagnerian voice. Wagner wrote for Mozart-trained
voices largely, which mine is. What we have come to think of now
as a Wagnerian sound basically did not exist in the time of Wagner.
BD: I wonder
if it existed in his mind?
doesn't know. I think the voices came into being as a result of
the music rather than vice-versa. At any rate, what I am trying
to bring to my performances is the kind of Wagnerian singing that was
done perhaps by Lilli Lehmann or people like that. I'm not
striving for, nor do I feel cheated that I don't have a big, steely
kind of sound. I think that there are other aspects of the role
which can be brought out to a greater extent perhaps because I have a
lighter and more flexible sound.
BD: Are you a
more introverted Isolde?
JM: I don't
think so in particular, no, but it's definitely more of a feminine
Isolde, perhaps warmer because I am not singing with stentorian tone
all the time. For Isolde, it lends itself particularly well
because even though the opera is very, very long, a lot of it is not
heavily orchestrated. There are maybe three really big orchestral
moments, and much of the rest of it is page after page of lighter
sounds. So that is a point that I would like to draw to the
attention of the public. Since the time of Flagstad, audiences
have come to expect the huge sound from these roles. Perhaps the
Brüunnhildes need the bigger sound, but certainly Isole can be
sung lyrically. I want to follow where my voice leads me. I
don't want to try to impose something on the instrument. When I
first began to sing after graduating from school, I went to Germany
with the idea of getting repertoire experience in the small German
houses. They took one look at me and said I'd sing Wagner.
I told them maybe in 5 or 20 years, but not then. I knew that if
I started out singing Wagner, my voice would be gone in a couple of
BD: Is this a
constant problem — managers trying to push
singers into too much too fast?
depends on the voice and the stature. I had a good-sized voice
even then, and because I looked Wagnerian, that was what they expected
me to do. They wanted to hear what they saw. So I gave up
the idea of singing over there and came back to the US and did a lot of
touring with smaller companies. I sang almost all the Mozart
repertoire and a lot of the lyric repertoire. That way I
gradually built up the stamina in my voice, and the voice did indeed
develop so that it went in that direction. Just as many singers
will say they grew up listening to Caruso records, in our house it was
Melchior and Flagstad. So I grew up listening to Wagner, and to
me that was the epitome of the vocal art. But when I started out,
I could not say that I would be a Wagnerian singer. I had to wait
and see where my voice took me. Fortunately it did lead me in
that direction, but I have guarded it very carefully and will continue
to do so.
BD: Now that
you've sung Isolde at Bayreuth, do you find that everyone is clamoring
for that role in other houses?
absolutely, and it's something that I want to ration myself. I'd
be very happy to do only one or two productions of Isolde a year, and
certainly while I have this commitment to sing it every summer at
Bayreuth, I'll cut down on the number of times I'll sing it during the
rest of the year.
How difficult is the long wait before you sing again in Act III?
JM: It is very
difficult. You have to re-vocalize and continue
singing in the dressing room. It's almost like doing two separate
performances. Because the first two acts of Isolde are so long
so arduous, you really feel like you've finished your night's work by
the time you're finished with the second act, and the tendency is
really to let go and let down. When critics write that a singer
tired in the third act, I think that often it is simply that the
intensity has cooled off and there isn't really time before the Liebestod to build that up
again. I always count on a good twenty
minutes of vocalizing before I go on for the third act.
BD: Do you
eat during the intervals, especially the long intervals at Bayreuth?
JM: It is
brought into the dressing room. I have never been a
singer who sings on an empty stomach. Many do and swear by it,
me it's not comfortable. Generally I find my biggest singing is
toward the end of the evening, and if I've not eaten anything, I'm out
of energy completely.
BD: Do you
eat or not eat anything special?
JM: I just
eat a regular meal about three hours before the performance.
BD: Does that
change at Bayreuth because of the extra length?
I start out the same, but there I do eat something light
during the second interval. That gives me a nice little boost for
Would you sing other roles at Bayreuth — Sieglinde
or Senta, perhaps?
JM: Yes, I'd
be very pleased to. I have continued to make arrangements to sing
Mozart and other lighter roles as well. They offer a good rest
for my voice and retains the flexibility and youthfulness of sound
which I am anxious to keep in my voice. So at least for the time
being, I am going to keep a foot in both camps.
BD: I had a
nice chat with Hermann
Winkler last year, and he is one who sings both Mozart and
Wagner. Now I find the same thing in you.
JM: I find
that Mozart is probably the finest vocal training anybody can get, and
it can be sung at any stage of one's vocal development as long as the
flexibility remains in the voice. It is excellent for young
singers to begin, and it is possible for a mature singer to give Mozart
BD: Is it a
comfort to you to still be able to sing Mozart?
JM: Yes, it
is. The path for me leads from Mozart to Strauss to Wagner
because of the long line and sustained singing which is required.
Mozart has the lightest orchestration; there is more in Strauss and the
most in Wagner. For me, the natural bridge into Wagner were the
operas of Strauss — Ariadne, Rosenkavalier.
BD: Do you
enjoy singing in translation?
JM: Not so
much, no. I've have done so a great deal. I sang Sieglinde
in both the German and English Ring
cycles in Seattle for three summers. Fortunately, that is a very
good translation. I had sung Sieglinde in English first before
learning the German, so that made it a little bit easier. It is
very difficult to sing a role in one language for a long time and then
come into it later in another language. The Wagner translations
that Andrew Porter
has done are really very vocal and very singable and very much to the
BD: Do you
find any closer rapport with the audience when you know that they can
understand every line?
JM: We found
that more at the NYCO in the Meistersinger
production a few years back. I remember it was a very big cause célèbre.
The press came out against it before we opened saying that we should
not meddle, and things like that should not be done, and that it should
be done only at the Met in the original language. [Remember, this interview was held in
October of 1981, just a little more than a year prior to the
introduction of supertitles in the theater by Lotfi Mansouri and
the Canadian Opera Company in January of 1983!] As
it turned out, the production was very, very successful. It was a
lovely production visually, and we had a very strong cast. It was
just altogether a big success with the audiences and the press.
BD: The press
changed their minds?
JM: Yes, they
did. The fact that people could listen to those long monologues
and for once know what they were about word by word was a very positive
thing. I think all singers would agree that singing in
translation is never quite the same. The words have been written
to follow a certain series of sounds, but many translations are very
good and I certainly think they should be done. Whether it is
totally comfortable or not is sometimes of secondary importance.
The fact that some things can be communicated to the audience that
would otherwise not be is very important. It was a wonderful
opportunity because we did it in English, and later that year the Met
did it in the original.
BD: How much
of a pixie is Eva?
[Laughs] Well, she wasn't too much of a pixie with me! My
background was theater. I was born into a theatrical
family. In fact, I was born here in Chicago. My father
produces and stars in the Black
Hills Passion Play which he brought from Germany before WWII.
BD: This is
still being done?
BD: Have you
sung in it?
JM: Oh, I
have done so many times. My mother joined the company as an
actress and her family was a Chicago theatrical family that was active
in vaudeville and musical comedy. My grandfather was Eddie Hume,
who was a very well known dancer and comedian in vaudeville. Just
prior to my birth, the passion play was on tour and mother wanted to
return to Chicago so they came back here two weeks before I was born,
and returned to the tour two weeks after I came along. By the
time I was five weeks old, I was taken on the stage, and was on the
stage from then on as a child and as I grew up in a variety of roles,
so I had a great deal experience as an actress and being around the
theatrical life and its people.
BD: I can see
the headline in the National Inquirer
— "Five week old baby longs to sing Isolde!"
Yes! [Both laugh]
- [Portions of two
different articles about the Passion Play with photos added from other
One of Europe's oldest productions, the Passion Play — which recreates
events during the last seven days of the life of Christ — was first
presented on the American stage in 1932. It was brought to the United
States from Germany by Josef Meier, who, until his retirement in 1991,
continued to produce and direct the drama three nights a week from
early June through the end of August in an ourdoor amphitheater in
Spearfish, South Dakota.
Known as the Black Hills Passion Play since 1939, when the company
settled in Spearfish, the huge outdoor production features Roman
soldiers on horseback, a camel caravan, and pigeons escaping from cages
as merchants and moneylenders are driven from the Temple.
The amphitheater, which seats 6,000, was built specifically for the
Passion Play and claims to have the world's largest stage. A series of
permanent sets are used to portray Bethany, the home of Mary and
Martha; the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor; the Temple;
the Garden of Gethsemane; the Tomb; and Mount Calvary.
- South Dakota
- The Black Hills Passion Play was performed every
summer for almost seventy years in Spearfish, South Dakota; this
production was an American version of the Lünen Passion Play that
was brought over in 1932 by immigrants who claimed that it had been
produced since 1242. The production was Americanized by
seventh-generation Passion Player Josef Meier, who toured it around the
country before bringing it to Spearfish in the 1930s; until its last
performance on August 31, 2008, the show was produced under the
auspices of Meier's daughter, Johanna, a world-famous opera singer who
had her debut in the play at the age of five weeks. During the winter
months from 1953 through 1998, the same cast also performed the play in
Lake Wales, Florida.
BD: Has being
exposed to it from such a young age made it easier for you as an adult?
JM: I think
so, yes. And just as a side note, The Passion Play played in this very
theater, and this dressing room where we are now was my parents'
dressing room, which is now my dressing room! I often go back to
sing in the same theater where I had sung in the Passion Play, and stay in the same
hotel. It's all very déjà
vu. But in any event, this training that I had as an
actress held me in very good stead when I came into opera. I had
listened to the Saturday broadcasts, but it never dawned on anyone that
I would become a singer. Then my high school choral director
entered me in a singing contest. Perhaps it was because I knew
what opera was or because I could speak a foreign language, she entered
me. So I went to a local lady who had done some professional
singing to find out a little bit of what I should be doing as far as
breath support and so forth. Then I sang in the contest which I
won! The contest was in connection with the Pan-American Music
Festival in Miami, and the prize was a vocal scholarship to the
University of Miami. So my first appearance as a singer was as
the winner of this contest in the Orange Bowl in front of 18,000
people! I was trundled out into the middle of the Orange Bowl to
sing the aria I had learned, Un Bel
Di from Madam Butterfly.
So we decided to begin the training and see if there was enough voice
to build a career on. I liked opera because it combined music and
the theater. Within a year, as a student, I had made my debut
with the Miami Opera as Siébel in Faust. That's a nice role
with a nice little aria, but doesn't make too many demands on the
performer. The rest of the cast were Met singers
— Siepi, Conner, Campora — so I
really got off on the right foot. I never sang the comprimario
roles, though. There were some secondary roles, but not the long
procession of maids and aunts and governesses, etc. Then I
finished up at the Manhattan School of Music where John Brownlee was
the director and he got me into Mozart.
BD: Where was
your first Isolde?
BD: Did the
altitude bother you?
JM: No. I was
fortunate because having been raised to a certain extent in the Black
Hills of South Dakota, that's very high country. So I was kind of
accustomed to that. I was originally scheduled to sing my first
Isolde in Toronto. That had come about through a Tosca production I did in Amsterdam
with Lotfi Monsouri. He came to me one day during rehearsal and
asked if I would sing Isolde for him in Toronto. I told him that
I had always dreamed of singing the role but had not yet worked on
it. So I told him I would have to look at it and decide
later. I had been doing a lot of work necessary for my other
roles, and I tried not to work too much on roles that I was not
actually preparing. So I was very pleased that he would ask me,
and it gave me about a year and a half to prepare the role. I was
about half-way through my learning it when an offer came through to
sing it in Mexico City. I thought it would be a good place to try
out the role and to learn about how to pace it in performance.
BD: Who were
JM: In Mexico
it was the Finnish tenor Pentti Perksalo, and in Toronto it was Spas
Wenkoff. The Brangaene was Mignon Dunn, for which I will be
eternally grateful because with all the hasty preparation I was coming
directly from the two Rings
in Seattle. We had three days of rehearsals and then I was to
sing my first Isolde. Just remembering all the words was a task
in itself because the part is so long.
BD: Did you
rely on the prompter?
JM: We had no
prompter. What had been scheduled for us was an orchestral
rehearsal with the singers just sitting on the stage concentrating on
the music. I thought this would be great to get it settled in my
ear with the orchestra.
BD: Did you
sing or just mark?
JM: I had
intended to sing. I arrived at the theater and the stage settings
were in place, the orchestra was in the pit, and the director saw me
and said "Ah, Señora Meier, you do as you like."
BD: He was
expecting you to simply recreate your previous performances?
right. So as I say, it was very fortunately my good and generous
colleague was Mignon Dunn who had done many Brangaenes. She
basically just walked me through the part, and for our three days of
rehearsal we simply went through the entire opera three times on the
stage. By the third day we had a working idea of what I was going
to do. That was my first Isolde, three performances there.
It was received very well, and the main thing was that I knew I could
sing my way through it and not be wiped out at the end. I found
that it was more than just a possible role for me, it was a comfortable
role for me. That took a great deal of the pressure off the
production in Toronto, and when I went there a few months later, we had
a normal rehearsal period. We had a very nice production up there
and it got me off on a good start in the role. Then I did a
series of them in England for the Welsh opera company, and then a
production at La Fenice in Venice. Then came the production in
Seattle which I introduced, then finally in Bayreuth. So it was a
very fortunate progression for me.
BD: Have you
sung it in English?
BD: Would you?
JM: I don't
think so mainly because it is so long and there would be so much of it
to learn. My learning time is so limited and so precious now, and
there are so many things that I have to prepare that I have to be very
selfish about what I choose to learn.
BD: Tell me
about doing Sieglinde.
JM: I like
doing Sieglinde very much. It was actually my first Wagnerian
role. I sang that a the Chautauqua festival in English. I
was interested to try it. It was in a small theater and it worked
very well. I subsequently sang a great many of them across the
country, and ultimately in Seattle. I find her a very fascinating
character and the role offers nice vocal challenges and a lot of acting
and physical movement. Another Wagnerian role of which I'm very
fond of is Senta.
BD: Have you
done that one in both English and German?
JM: No, just
dreamy is that role?
JM: Well, I
think very. I was a little startled seeing the production in
Bayreuth, which is very far-out by our standards. I have
discovered that the Europeans tend to think of American productions as
being very old-fashioned and we tend to think of theirs as being very
far-out and bizarre. Probably the truth lies somewhere in
between. But I did find myself a little uncomfortable with that
Bayreuth production. I, at least, was glad that I was not singing
it because the poor Senta was onstage from the moment the curtain
opened until it fell.
BD: Would you
then remember that so if you were offered that role in that production
you'd turn it down?
quite. She ended up singing some of the most difficult and
crucial passages lying on her stomach and writhing all over the
floor. It just was not my idea of how a Senta should be treated.
BD: Was the Tristan more to your liking?
JM: Yes. It
was for them, evidently, a return to a somewhat more traditional
production. For me there were still some moments of stylization
that I found a little difficult to cope with, but basically it was a
production that leaned much more to the realistic. It was,
however, very heavily symbolic and there were aspects of it
— as there generally are in Ponnelle's productions
— which were physically very demanding. I had done
his production of the Flying Dutchman
at the Met, so I kind of knew what to expect when he had much the same
situation in Bayreuth. He tends to direct very visually. He
sees pictures and then he fits the singers into them. So it's
like being in a slide show. There was a lot of singing on the
knees. I was visible to the audience from the moment the prelude
began, and I did not stand up until about forty minutes into the
opera. There was a lot of handling and maneuvering of an enormous
and heavy cape which took up almost the entire playing area of the
stage when it was spread out. That was the first visual picture
of Isolde, sitting in the midst of this cape. It weighed
sixty-five to seventy-five pounds, and I had to drag that around with
me for awhile. It was not an easy production to do, but
ultimately the audience responded very well. They liked the
production a lot.
right shows Ponnelle, Kollo, and Meier rehearsing Tristan at Bayreuth.]
BD: Did you
die on your feet?
JM: No, and
that was one thing we had a bit of controversy about. Evidently
Ponnelle's first idea for dealing with that was neither Isolde nor any
of the other characters who appear at the end of the opera would be
seen. They would be all figments of Tristan's dying delirium, and
would be sung from the pit. I was not told this until we were
actually in a rehearsal with the orchestra. Then maestro
Barenboim told me I was going to sing it from the pit. I said we
had not discussed it and I really did not want to sing Isolde from the
pit — particularly the Liebestod. So what eventually
evolved was about four different versions. The idea of my singing
from the pit was discarded, then I was moved onto the stage and covered
with a black cape so that I actually wasn't seen at all. Then
when that was discarded, we moved on up into the scenery. There
was a very high projected rock/platform on which Tristan was, and in
the center of it was a lightening-blasted tree which had been split in
half — which presumably indicated the forceful
separation of Tristan from Isolde. I got up on the platform, but
I came up on an elevator behind the tree. I was supposed to be
wearing this enormous first-act cape again, but then I could only see a
tiny bit of Barenboim in the orchestra and nobody in the audience could
see me at all. And they could hardly hear me because all the
sound was going into the back of the tree which I was standing
behind. So that was discarded, and there was also very briefly a
very traditional version in which we all came on and did what we
usually do, but that idea only lasted one morning and by lunch time
that had been abandoned. So we came up to the night before the
opening performance and I went to the theater the night before the
opening and had conferences with Barenboim and Ponnelle. We
finally came up with the version which was ultimately used, and that
was for me to appear standing slightly behind Tristan on the platform
but with no contact. I was appearing still as a vision in
Tristan's imagination. This was what we finally did and was
rehearsed ten minutes before the third act curtain went up! So it
was not a totally successful realization of the third act situation
either from the standpoint of sound or from a visual and dramatic
standpoint. So the third act — or at least
that part of the third act — is to be re-worked
for next summer. What the fifth version will be I can't now
probably end up doing the twelfth version...
Yes. But it did evolve.
BD: Have you
ever been involved in a production where you simply could not agree
with what was being done and said Good-bye?
Because of my background, I always have an extra sympathy and
understanding for the directorial challenges. I search for
compromise and possibilities rather than just cutting myself off from
the situation altogether. Fortunately I have never been faced
with that kind of situation where there was total inflexibility.
When the director feels that the people are working toward the strength
of the entire performance — rather than for the
ego of one performer — then I think
a compromise is possible. As I say, I was raised in the tradition
that I am a part of the performance as a whole. I'm not out there
just to be a famous solo singer doing something; I am there to convey
my part in the whole production.
BD: Have you
done some concert operas?
some. I've done the first act of Walküre a lot. [Note: Meier, Kollo and Barenboim would
bring Act II of Tristan to
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in November of 1985.]
BD: Do you
miss the movement and try to make a few gestures?
JM: I'm a
very physical performer and have had a lot of training in body-movement
for the stage. I even taught it for awhile at the Manhattan
School. I also studied dancing as a little girl, so I am very
concerned with the physical motion during performances. I feel
movements enhance the voice. I don't just sing from the throat
up. My total body is involved as an instrument of communication,
so when the movement is taken away from me, I am far more uncomfortable
than when I have a lot of extra moving around to do.
BD: Have you
I've been offered it a number of times, but I'm going to wait on that
role until the time is right for me.
BD: Are you
thinking of Brünnhilde?
Yes. I've been offered those also, but in those cases the time
was either too short or not right. When I do begin to do them,
they will have to be carefully prepared.
BD: Would you
rather do just one at a time rather than all three at once?
Definitely one at a time. They each present their own particular
challenges, and one has to become quite conversant with each of them
singly before you attempt to bring them all in together. That's
one of the drawbacks of the big heavy repertoire. When I was
doing the lighter Italian roles, I could plan to learn three or four
new roles a year. But that is not the case with the Wagner
parts. You have to prepare the Wagners very carefully in order
that they are well sung and well placed and well thought out.
BD: Do you
psych the characters out as you learn the role?
JM: Yes to a
certain extent, but I find that the most development of the character
takes place after I get it on its feet because of this physical
involvement that I was talking about. Each character somehow
seems to come to life only after I have begun to walk around and move
in it. Then each character has a certain physical presence that
appears and imposes itself on me. Then I feel I have begun to
discover it. I come to each production with an open mind and try
to listen to the new ideas. I will always try something before I
decide to say no.
BD: Do you
learn from each performance?
JM: Oh, I
BD: You enjoy
yes. I don't think that anyone who doesn't could put up with the
drawbacks of this profession, and I don't think that anybody who wasn't
dedicated to their art would put up with it for a minute.
© 1981 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at the
Opera house in Chicago on November 10, 1981. Segments were used
on WNIB in 1993. The
transcription was made and much of it was published in Wagner News in the Summer issue of
1982. It was re-edited and photos and other sections were added,
and it was posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.